Rhetorical vs. Historical Distinctions

Although I find myself usually agreeing with Victor Davis Hanson on contemporary politics, his observations about how blue states are coming to look like the Confederacy took me entirely aback. Hanson’s comparison assumes an historical parallel that may work as political rhetoric but not as persuasive historical analysis. He tells us for example: “In archetypal ‘states’ rights’ fashion, blue-state ‘sanctuary cities’ are as defiant of the federal government as the Old South was when it claimed immunity from federal jurisdiction—all the way from the nullification crisis of 1830-1833 to George Wallace in 1963 blocking the door at the University of Alabama.” Why exactly should I believe that all expressions of defiance against the federal government reflect the same rebellious mindset or political ideology? Although mainstream Republicans who see themselves as defenders of a strong central government in the tradition of Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan may vibrate to Hanson’s attacks, his parallel leaves me unconvinced. 

 Questionable historical comparisons have abounded for generations. The Left’s comparison of the events of January 6 to Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 illustrates for me an obvious abuse of the historian’s craft. But this utterly tendentious parallel resonates with leftist partisans and has helped mobilize them against the Right. A less irrational but also questionable historical parallel that I came across as a European historian was the view of the French Revolution as a reenactment of the Protestant Reformation. This view prevalent among Catholic counterrevolutionaries during and after the upheaval in France misread the relationship between two historical events. Among the Revolution’s most energetic adversaries were Protestant England and Protestant Prussia; and among its earliest polemical opponents were anti-revolutionary Protestants, e.g., Jacques Mallet du Pan, Friedrich Gentz, New England High Federalists, and, not least of all, the Anglican Edmund Burke. One may rightly wonder about likening Martin Luther to Robespierre. 

Southern whites may be (relatively speaking) among the least radicalized Americans if we judge by how they vote and volunteer for the military. But this may be due to a continuity in their traditions, not because they have broken from what they used to be. White Southerners and at least some black ones pride themselves on being among the most Christian and most patriotic Americans, which is what Southerners were before and after Appomattox. Southern secession in 1861 may have been utter folly, but it reveals no significant resemblance to what the Left is now doing to our country. Today’s Left is not seceding from a political compact but using the deep state, mainstream media, surveillance agencies, and public education to establish their control over the entire United States. This power grab has more in common with the behavior of the Nazis and Communists than it does with those Southern secessionists who tried unsuccessfully to leave the Union in 1861. 

One should not confuse the beliefs and motives of the Southern secessionists with those of the woke Left. The Southerners who tried to form a separate nation seemed understandably to such 19th-century leftists as Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill to be diehard reactionaries. The Southern gentry accepted a hierarchical society, fixed gender roles, and an aristocratic honor code. The woke Left by contrast seeks to subvert all long-established human relations and to throw open American borders to Third World populations, who will be free to settle here and live off government subsidies. The blue state Left shows no interest in punishing violent crime, providing it’s committed by designated victims. 

Hanson points to the apparent similarity between traditional Southern white society that discriminated against blacks and the “racial quotas” pushed by blue states. But the racial discrimination in the two cases is totally different. One form of discrimination was applied to former slaves and their descendants; the other expresses the hatred of white elites toward other whites, whom they seem determined to degrade. One needn’t defend either form of discrimination to notice the one that now prevails in America is entirely sui generis. It is certainly not an extension of Jim Crow. 

In my study of fascism, I warn against the overly free use of my key term. Not all anti-Semites, for example, have been fascists, and not all fascists have been anti-Semites. And not all critics of capitalism and constitutional government have represented the same ideology. Historical analysis requires sensitivity to distinctions and is different from throwing all one’s villains into one bag. This puts me in mind of Max Weber’s famous distinction between politics and “science” as separate vocations (the German term Wissenschaft has a more expansive meaning than the English translation and refers to any methodically organized scholarly discipline). Weber finds justification for both these activities but also insists they are essentially different. It may be fair to assume that Hanson’s attack on the “blue Confederate states” is a political exercise, not the professional scholarship he offers elsewhere. It is acceptable for what it is, which is political rhetoric.  


About Paul Gottfried

Paul Edward Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.

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